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A notice posted at headquarters has riveted Hathaway and not gone unnoticed by Lewis. That is, until they are called to St. Gerard's archaic grounds to investigate the murder of Bishop Helen Parsons, participant in the college's interfaith conference.
Poisoned by the college's own chianti, Parsons was last seen picnicking by the river with a mysterious hooded figure. But St. Gerard's is replete with hooded figures — "friars, not monks," Hathaway elucidates. The setting seems comforting to the former seminarian, its chapel luring him even as Lewis sets to work interviewing suspects. Chief among them is the dour, pompous brother Stephen Blackmore, overseer of the college's wine cellar. He is one of Vice Regent Mancini's favored candidates in an upcoming election to fill the retiring brother's coveted post. The reactionary Mancini seeks a conservative to continue his life's work, certainly not the reforming yet personable Joanna Pinnock or the far more liberal Caroline Hope. Beneath the peaceful setting lies a bitter power struggle, and the detectives suspect that Parsons, with her progressive views, was its first victim.
But the horrific murder of one of the candidates quickly rules out that theory. The victim was subject to a grisly death mirroring one in a Jacobean revenge play — suspiciously, the very material covered in Hope's conference lecture. The only clue: a note pinned to the victim, inscribed "Wild justice." Its obscure literary provenance reveals it too to be Jacobean: "Revenge is a kind of wild justice."
In a setting four hundred years old and on the brink of drastic change, the macabre Jacobean sensibility reaches out and claims another victim, ambitious rivals protect their secrets, and uncertainty looms for Lewis and Hathaway as they ponder their futures. Meanwhile, out of the past, the keeper of a dark secret festering for decades seeks wild, ultimate justice.
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
As religious leaders of many faiths celebrate the end of an ecumenical conference at Oxford's St. Gerard's college, liberal American Bishop Helen Parsons suddenly drops dead after drinking a poisoned glass of wine.
Lewis and Hathaway start by interviewing St. Gerard's ultra-traditional vice-regent, Father Mancini, who is an unusually hostile host for the progressive gathering. The detectives learn that the fatal cup of wine came from St. Gerard's private vintage and was given to the bishop by one of the college's friars.
They also discover that Father Mancini is due to retire and a power struggle is underway to succeed him. The leading candidate is literature scholar Caroline Hope, the conference organizer, who is determined to bring the medieval St. Gerard's into the modern age, a goal supported by Bishop Parsons.
The other candidates are Brother Stephen Blackmore, Father Mancini's protˇgˇ, who is also steward of the wine cellar; theologian Joanne Pinnock, a more moderate alternative to the radical Caroline; and Brother Jeremy Swain, a conservative candidate. Swain hasn't returned from a holiday as expected and his absence is beginning to cause concern.
Before long, Brother Jeremy is found in a nearby forest, buried up to his chest and dead from starvation, a mode of execution described in one of Shakespeare's more grisly revenge plays. Two more murders typical of Jacobean drama follow: Joanne's son is throttled with a friar's waist cord, and retired detective Barry Winter — recently seen lurking around St. Gerard's — is smothered with a cushion. Interestingly, Caroline's field is Jacobean revenge tragedy, and its connection with the murders casts her in suspicious light. But her dour and secretive colleague Blackmore, hiding something in a shed on his farm, is soon caught in a lie as Lewis reveals that he had a previous relationship with Bishop Parsons.
Meanwhile, Father Mancini's retirement project, a study center in Tuscany, is to be financed by the sale of valuable paintings donated by Adele Goffe, St. Gerard's chief benefactor, who owns the mansion where Father Mancini and Caroline have quarters. Adele's daughter, Gina, wants to thwart the gift, so that she can be more financially secure to marry her heartthrob, Adele's butler, Felix Sansome.
Then Lewis and Hathaway are briefed by higher-ups that as a ten-year-old child named Sally Bond, Caroline was convicted in a notorious case of a burglary gone wrong, in which an elderly couple died horribly at her hands. Sally was incarcerated and later released as an adult with a new name, Caroline Hope. Rehabilitated, she flourished in the academic world. But her past caught up with her when retired detective Barry Winter suddenly appeared on campus.
The detectives also learn that Caroline's childhood victims had a daughter who killed herself out of grief for her parents' death. And that woman had a son, now in his forties. He is none other than Felix, whose long-lived revenge scheme against Caroline, the woman he sees as responsible for his mother's death, is in its final throes. He has abducted Caroline and plans to murder her, making her stabbing look like a suicide. On the point of forcing Caroline to plunge a dagger into her own heart, Felix reveals that he has written a suicide note for her, in which she confesses to delivering poisoned wine to Bishop Parsons by mistake, when its intended recipient, Barry Winter, was moved into a different hotel room; later killing Barry; and murdering Brother Jeremy to eliminate him from the election, along with Joanne's son so that the grieving mother would drop out of the race.
"Even if I win," he writes for her, "I can't hide my true nature any more and I know that I am beyond redemption. That's why I must take my own life." But Lewis and Hathaway interrupt this revenge fantasy, capturing Felix to be delivered for true justice, and releasing Caroline for her newly-won job as vice-regent.